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How to Comment a Literary Text

sábado, 19 de septiembre de 2015

How to Comment a Literary Text

This is concise practical guide on how to comment a literary text, aimed at undergraduate students of literature. It addresses a number of different aspects in the text and the student’s interaction with it: reading, authorship, theme, rhetoric and style, enunciation and address, genre and intertextuality, matters of history and ideology, gender and representation, evaluation, writing style and documentation.

Keywords: Literature, Commentary, Writing guides, Criticism



How to Comment a Literary Text


J.A. García Landa



Commenting a text involves reading it in an interesting and creative way, and being able to communicate that reading. This requires intuition, as well as experience and knowledge. The intuition we all possess to a greater or lesser degree can also be developed through practice, learning how to use it. Practice consists in: a) Reading literary texts attentively; b) Reading literary criticism so as to learn from other commentaries; c) Writing textual commentaries regularly. There is no one key or formula enabling us to write a good commentary. Only time, constant work, and familiarity with the texts will teach us how to write interesting commentaries, distinguishing what is repetitive or obvious (or purely subjective, or merely wrong) from what is worth seeing in a text and saying about it, to other people, in a number of situations and critical contexts. Here we are dealing with an academic context, which has its own traditions and conventions. In order to get familiar with them it is helpful to read at least one book on how to write a critical paper.



These guidelines may provide a starting point. They are not exhaustive, and besides one need not deal with each and every of these points in a commentary. We should determine in each case which of the following aspects, or which other aspects, would be worth developing in our commentary. But one must also try not to focus only on a single aspect of a text.



Reading. Begin with a careful reading of the text, using any information sources required to solve problems of understanding (dictionaries, encyclopedias, online search, etc.). Be attentive to the specific meaning acquired by words in this specific text, as any dictionary or encyclopedia will only give you the general meaning of the term, not its contextualized meaning. Note those aspects of the text’s grammar, vocabulary or usage which may help you to locate it within a given historical period, and show in your commentary this awareness of the historical aspects of language.



Author and identification. If you are given a text with the author’s name, use your knowledge of the author’s work as background information for the commentary. But be careful: do not set aside the text you are supposed to comment in order to write an essay on the author in question. Any additional information you can use about the author, the historical period of the text or its intellectual context, will be  much more more valuable if you can relate that knowledge to specific aspects of the text you are commenting—matters of language, meaning, subject matter or presuppositions. You should point out in which way these aspects of the text reflect the general thematic, ideological or stylistic characteristics of the author’s work.



 If you are not given the name of the author, use your knowledge about literary periods, genres and fashions, and about the characteristics of the authors you are familiar with, in order to associate them to the text in question. Follow specific clues as well (characters’ names, setting, etc.).


But if you are not sure about the author, do not try to give the impression that you do know. The text might be an anonymous one, or it might come from a second-rank work you are not expected to identify. Therefore, restrict yourself to giving an account of what you see in the text: show that you recognize aspects of such or such school, movement, or style, that there are "elements in common" with the style of so-and-so… but without affirming it as a fact, unless you are quite certain about it. Even if you cannot identify the author with precision, the authors you are familiar with may serve you as a guide for the commentary, if you find characteristics in common.



Theme. Point out the main subject of the work or passage you are commenting—and how it is introduced and dealt with throughout the text. What kind of subject matter is presented? How does it relate to human experience (is it highly specific to a specific culture or class, or does it have a more universal appeal?). What does the subject matter reveal about the author’s intent in writing, and his outlook on the human world? Does the text present a detached perspective on the subject matter, or an involved one? Which interests, ideology, etc., is it promoting through this choice of subject? What kind of community is the text invoking, as regards its use of theme? Does it establish different perspectives on the theme, and if so, does it take sides with any of them, or argue against received ideas on this subject (etc)? We’ll come back later to issues of content and ideology.



Genre, Rhetoric, Style. What kind of text is it? Is it a narrative? Or perhaps not "a narrative" although it has narrative elements (which ones?). Is it descriptive? Expositional? Dramatic? Lyrical? If the text is a poem, describe its metrical characteristics, the verses and stanzas used, etc., but do not stop formal analysis at that point. Examine the rhetorical structure of the text, the persuasive or expressive resources employed; identify and describe the use of figures of speech and figures of thought, tropes, imagery, and the way they are used in order to shape the subject matter. Describe the main structural elements which, to your mind, shape and organize the text. What does this structure tell us about the style of the author, his ideas or his intention? In which ways are the genres or forms used in the work given a personal approach? (—that is, how do they become style?). Try to refer to specific aspects of the text: medium, orality, vocabulary, syntax, use of language, etc.—which make it characteristic. In analyzing a work, it is important to find those elements which unify it, which make it into a whole which fits together and has a coherent shape or makes a coherent statement. Which formal resources are used to create coherence and to impose a given perspective in the text? How is the subject matter of the text represented, through the use of images, metaphors, connotation, wordplay… in order to give it a definite shape? (An also, are there any elements which disrupt this coherence or put it under question?). That is, how does the text acquire a form of its own, a unique structure of meanings, in order to express and represent its subject?


Enunciation and Address: Part of the study of a text is the study of its author and its addressee (either actual or implied authors and readers). How are they represented in the text? Can one discern elements of self-representation, literal or fictionalised author-figures, fictional narrators? Are we being addressed by the author himself (—in which capacity?) or does he assume a fictionalised identity, or a conventional attitude towards the reader? Can we find irony, ambiguity, etc., in the author’s voice? This would amount to a doubling of the author’s voice, a kind of double-voicing. If we do find a play of different voices, how are these voices related to one another? (—for instance, an overtly ironical narrative and the real or ’serious’ attitude under it). The same thing may be asked on the reader’s side: Which image of the addressee, or of the audience, of the reading public, etc., is constructed? Does the addressee appear in an explicit way? Is it an individual character —real? —fictional? —the general reading public? Which attitude is expected by the author from this implied receiver—solidarity or confrontation? Which is the attitude taken towards the characters by the author, narrator, receiver… if any is discernible? Which is the perspective or point of view from which the action is presented? Does it coincide with that of any of the characters? If there are several points of view, how are they combined, or how are they subordinated to one another? Who enjoys the best information or topsight?



Intertextuality: Through a text we may be able to perceive other texts, the work of other authors. This may happen either explicitly or implicitly. Are there in the text any specific allusions to other works or literary genres? Can we find any implicit relationships between this text and other texts? This happens, for instances, in texts which are imitations, variations, or parodies of other works, or of kinds of works, as Don Quixote is a parody of chivalric romances. Try to bring out these implicit aspects of the dialogue established between the text and the literary tradition, especially the work’s sources, and its descendants too.



History: These formal issues soon derive into questions of an historical and ideological nature; point out how this is so. Try to establish, referring to specific aspects of the text, which is its significance, or the significance of the author’s writing, in the development of English literature. What is new, and what is traditional, in the kind of writing exemplified by this text? Can you relate it to any literary movement, current, fashion or circle, allowing you to situate it as a historical phenomenon? Which aspects of this text’s writing style (or subject) were not possible or likely to be found in another period or historical moment? Why? (Having some notions of history will help at this point).



Ideology: A text is the product of a society, an epoch, a mentality or ideology. Point out which aspects of the text to be commented can be related with these wider aspects of its historical background. For instance, how are differences in social hierarchy or class represented in the text? How are social relationships portrayed? Does the text presuppose or represent an aristocratic and feudal society? Does it promote patriotic or monarchic views? Is it liberal, democratic in ideology? How is it to be situated with respect to the development of a modern society (—an urban, lay, pluralistic society?) Can you trace in it the discourse of nationalism? colonialism? racism? Does it express revolutionary, progressive or reactionary ideas? Is it conservative? Which social identities are expressed or promoted? Which stylistic resources are used to express or reinforce the implied political message of the text?


    Can you find any evidence of mythical discourses or pre-scientific beliefs, typical of any given period or culture? Belonging to any specific belief system, religion or philosophy? Explain them and briefly situate them in the context of the history of ideas. Is the text written with a view to supporting these ideas, or does it just presuppose them as part of its world view? Does it argue against any system of ideas or beliefs, in an explicit or implicity way?


    A very interesting aspect to be discussed is the representation of gender and sexuality. How are men and women characterized in the text? Which are the gender and the sexual ideology of the author (of the narrator, of the characters…?). How does the rhetoric of narrative—and the verbal images, metaphors, etc.— contribute to articulate and convey a sexual ideology? Does the ideology promoted by the text have any sense today? Which other aspects relative to the ideologies of the self, the individual subject, and of social identities appear in the work? Examine the specific ways in which they are expressed.



Evaluation. Which aspect of the text is most striking or interesting, and which is the reason? Is it central to the author’s intention, or accidental, peripheral, but significant to you? Try to evaluate the text with a degree of historical distance or perspective. Conclude the commentary with an evaluation of the most important subject of the text you want to bring out in your commentary, as it is seen from your perspective.



Writing and documentation. Write coherently, structuring the paper into paragraphs which constitute units of meaning; do not begin or end with isolated matters of detail, but with an organised perspective on the text. Do not write a collection of isolated sentences! If possible, organise the commentary around a central interpretation of the aspect of the text you find most interesting or important, which makes it characteristic or significant now, or then. Emphasize the most important elements, and do not waste time on irrelevant or isolated details. Revise the spelling, grammar and use of English before handing it in. 


     As to the use of critical bibliography, in papers written as homework: its role should be to document or support your own reading, and not to replace it or obscure it. Learn about the author and the text, but try to show your own reading understanding of the text, not somebody else’s. You can also argue with another reading, contradict it, or use it in your own argument. Background information need not be specifically quoted. But in specific critical readings it is essential to separate in a clear way what is your own text, and what is it you take from another source. DO NOT PLAGIARIZE, and above all do not cut and paste from the web… or from books. Use your own words (and ideas whenever possible) and use inverted commas and proper citations if you quote someone. Try to use a style which is personal and correct—and readable.
 How to comment a critical text

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